Faith leaders call for release of Iran's imprisoned Baha'is
LONDON — Representatives from the United Kingdom's major religious communities have called for the immediate release from prison in Iran of that country's seven former Baha'i leaders.
The call came at an unprecedented commemorative meeting in Westminster Abbey, held on 27 May, to mark the sixth anniversary of their imprisonment. The seven are each currently serving 20-year jail sentences, the longest faced by any of Iran's prisoners of conscience.
The gathering took place in the Abbey's historic Jerusalem Chamber. Dating from the late 14th century, it is the room where committees translated the Authorized Version of the Bible in 1611, and prepared subsequent revised editions.
Welcoming the guests, the Reverend Andrew Tremlett – Canon of Westminster Abbey – explained how the Abbey "aspires to be a place that gathers people of all faiths and none, so it is absolutely right that this occasion is happening here."
The program included prayers and reflections delivered by representatives of the Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and Zoroastrian communities. After the contributions, seven of the faith leaders each lit a candle, representing a prisoner.
Parliamentarians, government officials, civil society actors, academics, and representatives of interfaith organizations were also in attendance. Louise Ellman MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Friends of the Baha'is group, said that the event was taking place "in the context of an ongoing deterioration of the human rights situation in Iran".
The Iranian government's treatment of its Baha'i community is the litmus test of its regard for the human rights of all its citizens, Ms. Ellmann added.
"Today I reiterate the call in urging the Iranian authorities to release the [Baha'i leaders] unconditionally and immediately."
Two prominent faith leaders – a Sunni Muslim and a Coptic Orthodox Christian – also offered remarks. In a video message which was screened to the gathering, Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra – who serves as an imam in Leicester – said that "no religion teaches us to treat others wrongly and oppress them... Iran has the opportunity to demonstrate to the world that Islam is indeed a religion of compassion and peace".
Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom said that "we stand with, and pray for, the Baha'i community, both here and around the world, and pray for the safe return of their leaders to them".
"We pray for a change of heart, a change of policy. We pray for a change of thought and understanding," said Bishop Angaelos.
Speaking on behalf of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United Kingdom, Fidelma Meehan said it was "heartwarming" to see such a diverse group of people gather in support of the human rights of the Baha'is in Iran.
Ms. Meehan also noted that government, interfaith, and civil society support in the United Kingdom was matched by a "growing awareness" around the world of the true intentions of the Baha'is to "strive for the spiritual and material welfare of others". Even in Iran, she said, a number of "promoters of justice, artists, statesmen, thinkers, and other enlightened citizens" have recently "broken their silence" in defense of the human rights of Iranian Baha'is.
In her concluding remarks, Ms. Ellman said, "Voices calling for change, voices speaking out against oppression must be heard – and after that, action must follow."
The seven Baha'i leaders formed the entire membership of the now-disbanded group known as the "Yaran" or "Friends in Iran", which operated with the explicit knowledge of the government to tend to the spiritual and social needs of the 300,000-member Baha'i community of that country.
On 14 May 2008, in a series of early morning raids in Tehran, six of them were arrested: Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm. A seventh member of the group, Mahvash Sabet, had been detained two months earlier on 5 March 2008.
Afterwards, the seven were subject to an entirely flawed judicial process. During their first year in detention, they were not told of the charges against them and had virtually no access to lawyers. Their trial, conducted over a period of months in 2010 and amounting to only six days in court, was illegally closed to the public, demonstrated extreme bias on the part of prosecutors and judges, and was based on non-existent evidence.